Health concerns us all in the Cree Nation, especially when you consider the diabetes epidemic in some communities. Other health issues affect people but it is difficult at times to understand the many diseases, causes, solutions or choices. This column is designed to assist but it will require your input if it is to be a regular feature in the Nation. You may send your questions via email to or by post to The Nation, 5505 St. Laurent, Suite 3018, Montreal, Quebec, H2T 1S6.

Most of the time, your questions will be forwarded to the Cree Board of Health and Social Services to be answered.

Everywhere we look, there seem to be advertisements for quick-fix, easy solutions to every problem. Some herbal remedies advertise fast and easy weight loss. Others promise instant relief or cure of long-term health problems. Vitamins claim to boost energy and enhance health. Are these products safe? Do they really work? Are they worth the money?

Natural medicines are medicine like any other and should be recommended by someone who understands the safe uses and dangers of these products. This includes Cree traditional healers who have received their knowledge and wisdom as a gift from their ancestors.

Myth: Herbs are natural and cannot hurt me.

Truth: Just because it is natural does not mean it is safe. There are many mushrooms and plants that grow naturally that are extremely deadly. Just think that if it has an action on the body, it can also cause harm if used unwisely (too much, for example). Also, many modern medications used today are derived directly from plants, so could be also considered “natural.” Being “natural” does not mean it is better, it just means it comes from a plant or natural source. For example, digoxin (lanoxin), a common medicine prescribed in the clinics for many Cree people with heart failure, comes from a plant.

Myth: If vitamins are good, taking lots of vitamins is better.

Truth: First, vitamin pills are no substitute for a healthy diet. Healthy food is the best source of vitamins, and also gives the body energy, protein, fiber and many other nutrients. Second, some vitamins (like vitamin A and vitamin D) are stored in fat. If you take too much of these vitamins, the extra vitamin does not get washed out of the body, and serious health problems can result.

Myth: There are no side effects from taking herbal remedies.

Truth: If a herbal remedy is strong enough to have a good effect on your body, it is likely also strong enough to cause some side effects in some people. This is as true for herbal remedies as it is true for prescribed medications. The list of known side effects is too long to be included here. Many herbal remedies have interactions with other medications, and you can also have an allergy to herbal remedies or the other ingredients mixed in with the products. Consult your physician, pharmacist or healer for further information.

Myth: The makers of “cure-all” herbal remedies and natural remedies sold over the internet, or by individuals in some of the communities, want to improve our health.

Truth: Like most businesses, many in the herbal and nutritional supplements business want to make money. Certainly many producers may have genuinely good intentions, but until new laws concerning herbal products come into full force in 2009, the products may not be tested for safety and benefit. Also, these remedies are sometimes very expensive! The individuals selling herbal remedies in the communities are usually not healers, and are selling the remedies because of the money they can make.

Myth: The herbal remedy sold on the internet or in the communities comes with statements by doctors and other people who say it works.

Truth: Unfortunately, you can not trust everything you read. On many of these products, the doctor or other people are paid money to help sell the herbal remedies. Ask your clinic nurse or doctor to help you understand the information available about the medicines or vitamins you are thinking of buying. (A good French information source is:

Other questions that have been asked:

Many people I know are buying a natural product sold in the community to treat their diabetes. Should I take it too?

Some of the natural products that are sold to treat diabetes are basically a very expensive mix of fruit juices. As you probably know, fruit juice (even if it is “all natural”), contains a lot of natural sugar. Using these products as a treatment for diabetes can be potentially dangerous if you stop using your proven diabetes treatments that are known to work (like healthy food, exercise and prescription diabetes medications). Checking your blood sugar and talking to someone at the clinic can you help you decide if these products are helping you or hurting you.

A friend has told me about some vitamins that can boost my energy. If I take these, can I stop taking the iron pills the doctor gave me for low blood iron?

Read the label carefully! Some of the vitamin supplements do not contain any iron at all! Others may contain doses that can cause problems if added on to your iron pills or other prescribed medicine (consult your physician or pharmacist for advice). Worse, some vitamin preparations contain very high doses of the kinds of vitamins that get stored in fat, and the “overdose” can cause health problems. Another thing to consider is that these products can often cost you $100 a month or more—that’s over a thousand dollars a year! You are much better off spending some of this money on fruits, vegetables, healthy foods, or even a treadmill or fitness centre membership.

But I have heard of people getting side effects from prescription medications too!

This is true. Some medications do give some people side effects. The difference is that because prescription medications are studied and regulated, doctors know what side effects are caused by the medications. Your doctor can then adjust this medication or your other medications, or even switch you to a different medication that is better for you and does not give you side effects.

If I use herbal remedies, what should I know?

If you are taking herbal remedies given to you by someone with knowledge and expertise in traditional or plant medicines, then it is important to tell your doctor or nurse what you are taking. Many herbal remedies interact with prescription medications. Always let him or her know whatever remedies you are taking – prescription, pills you buy without prescriptions or any herbal remedies.

How else can I improve my health?

Healthy living is more than just pills or supplements. It involves physical health and spiritual balance. Well-balanced diet, regular exercise, proper rest, sound faith, love and kindness all contribute to well-being.